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text 2017-08-14 22:48
Killing is my Business
Killing Is My Business (Ray Electromatic Mysteries) - Adam Christopher

As a huge fan of both hardboiled/noir and science fiction, Adam Christopher's Ray Electromatic series has been a guaranteed hit with me. Raymond (get it?) is the last of the robots from an aborted attempt to replace various public sector jobs with a silicon workforce. Still supposedly with the "Electromatic Detective Agency," his programming has been altered by the amoral supercomputer Ada (get it?) to transform him into a robotic killer-for-hire. Every twenty-four hours, his magnetic tapes run out and his entire memory is removed and wiped clean. Any book involving a robot running around in a trenchcoat and trying to solve a hardboiled mystery pastiche is bound to go over well with me, and Killing is my Business is no exception. This story, which involves a mafia boss, a mad scientist, government agents, and secret plots galore, is as entertaining as it is wacky and engrossing.

 

One of the things that makes this series so unique is the tension between Ray's hitman programming and his innate desire to be a good detective. He is simultaneously brutal and naive, and the longer he goes before his memory is erased, the more human he becomes. Then there's the tension and hope as his clock runs out, and the sudden shock of the newly-hard, cold, memory-erased Ray. it's a very unique take on the "tarnished knight" and chiaroscuro aspects of hardboiled detective fiction and noir. If any of this sounds intriguing, then the Ray Electromatic series is well worth a look.

 

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Tor Books, in exchange for my honest review. Thanks!~~

 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

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review 2016-03-30 04:18
"Never bang your head against a wall. Bang someone else's."
The Dark Side - Anthony O'Neill

The Dark Side

by Andrew O'Neill

"Only a lunatic would live on the Moon.
The Moon is a dead rock--eighty-one quintillion tons of dead rock. It's been dead for nearly four billion years. And--inasmuch as a dead rock wants anything--it wants you dead too."

So opens The Dark Side, a bold, brash, larger-than-life adventure with the aforementioned lunatics on the dark side of the moon. Exploding goats, discussions of democratic murder, bouncing chases across rooftops--bouncing because of the lower gravity, of course--, men with bowie knives popping up to interrupt informants as they open their mouths to tattle on the villain, rough terrain vehicle chases across moon craters… this book's got it all.

In some ways, The Dark Side reminded me of Douglas Adams, if Douglas Adams decided to borrow plot points from Guillermo de Toro and James M. Cain. Like Hitchhiker's Guide, the tone of the book is conversational, repeatedly breaking the fourth wall with explanatory asides to the reader, apparently with the assumption that the reader is a prospective tourist to the moon. The whimsical and punny character names-- Q.T. Brass, Johnny D-Tox, Dash Chin, Prince Oda Universe, etc-- reminded me of Adams as well.

 

However, there is one sharp difference: the level of gore. Since the city started life as a penal colony, the number of immoral characters isn't much of a surprise, but the details of some of their atrocities are still horrifying. Don't get attached to the characters of The Dark Side because in almost every case, here's what's going to happen: the character will be introduced, be humanized (or dehumanized) through a backstory, and then suffer a grisly fate. All within a few pages. Rinse and repeat. Sure, Adams has a pretty high death toll in Dirk Gently and Hitchhiker's Guide, but Adams' deaths are comparatively gentle and mostly happen offscreen, with a whale and a pot of petunias suffering some of the most graphic on-page deaths. (I still feel badly for the whale.) Like Adams or early Pratchett, I think O'Neill is using death as comic relief, but it's something I have difficulty appreciating, particularly since the deaths are often wincingly, breath-catchingly graphic. Unfortunately for me, I don't find death--even the death of sperm whales falling towards a planet--all that funny.

At the same time, O'Neill really, really gets the hardboiled/noir vibe. He's got the cheerfully immoral city, the almost admirably egotistical gangster kingpins, the enigmatic femme fatales, the sly wit, and the jaded but earnest detective. Example quintessential hardboiled quote:

"He's come to trust the droids implicitly. It's an illusion, of course, because he knows very well that robots can be programmed to betray, but in his experience humans are always programmed to betray."

Our protagonist, Damien Justus--pronounced like "Eustace," although no one on the moon seems to believe him-- has just been transferred to the city of Sin, part of Purgatory, on the dark side of the moon. (They tell it like it is in Purgatory. Motto of the city: "There's nothing better than living in Sin.") On his first day of work, he gets a bombing, and while no one on his team seems all that bothered, Justus quickly realizes that the murder may be tangled up in something much, much larger: a conspiracy that will put him in the middle of a power struggle between mob boss Fletcher Brass and his daughter, QT Brass. All too soon, Justus is fencing with the Brass family and their shared "art of preemptive candor" while dodging bullets, escaping hits, and investigating an ever-increasing pile of bodies. Even as Justus remains mired in Sin, a psychotic android is on its way to the city, swiftly internalizing Fletcher' Brass's "Brass Code" into its new moral system:

"Never bang your head against a wall. Bang someone else's."

If you're in the mood for a crazy, colorful, flamboyant noir space adventure, The Dark Side may be for you.

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~

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review 2016-03-12 07:33
"You can't plot murder like a novel."
The Silkworm - Robert Galbraith

The Silkworm

by Robert Galbraith

 

First, the disclaimer: I listened to this on audio, mostly while out biking with rain beating on my helmet, so my recollections way off. However, the audio has been reclaimed by Overdrive, so that's just how it's going to be.

 

J. K. Rowling has a true gift for creating compulsively readable books. I loved the Harry Potter books growing up, and I think the Strike series shows that Rowling can do hardboiled just as well as she can do children's fantasy. It doesn't hurt that Rowling seems to focus on topics she feels strongly about. The first book dealt with the monstrosity of fame. This book is all about the publishing industry, and Rowling certainly has a lot to say. Drunken editors, conniving agents, overweening authors, delusional SPAs... this book has them all in droves. As always, the cast is colorful, even if Rowling's portrait of them is less than charitable.

 

At the same time, despite all the graphic disturbing novel-within-a-novel content that I could really have done without (one reason not to listen to this on audio: those passages are a lot harder to skim or skip), the plot of The Silkworm reminded me strongly of an Agatha Christie mystery, and despite my deep and abiding fondness for the queen of Golden Age mystery, that is not a compliment.

Seriously? We're going with the "mannish" career woman twisted by her inability to get a man? What century are we in here? That bit at the end, with Liz all vulnerable, her fatal weakness of being insufficiently attractive exposed? Really?

(spoiler show)

I thoroughly enjoy the relationship between Robin and Strike, but in all honesty, I wish they'd keep it platonic. It's obviously not going to stay that way; the clearest indicator is the way in which Rowling continues her work of villifying Matthew. In the first book, Matthew was just a bit stiff, proud, and unempathetic, and I had hope that he might develop into a rounded character. In Silkworm, Rowling is no longer doing her audience the courtesy of giving them a choice of who to sympathize with. Matthew has been flattened into a vain, obsessive, jealous, vindictive, emotionally abusive villain. He pretty much exists solely to create conflict and to act as a foil for Strike. Robin's continued relationship with him is intensely frustrating and depressing. As a reader, I only sees his jealous, spiteful, controlling, emotionally abusive side, so Robin's fondness for him is utterly mystifying to me. 

All the same, I was kind of on Matthew's side for Robin's jaunt into the country. Can you imagine your SO leaving you alone to deal with the death of your mother while (s)he joyrides away into the country? Why wasn't she with him at a time like that?

(spoiler show)

I've read the next one already, so I know where this is going, but treating this book in isolation, I wish Rowling didn't make it quite so clear that she despises Matthew.

Anyway, despite a few flaws, The Silkworm is an entertaining continuation of a captivating series. I'm looking forward to more cases with Strike.

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review 2015-04-17 10:02
"Pull on new flesh like borrowed gloves / And burn your fingers once again."
Altered Carbon - Richard K. Morgan

Altered Carbon

by Richard K Morgan

 

Murder, intrigue, and digital human freight.

For me, speculative-hardboiled genre melds are a deeply satisfying blend of the familiar and the alien. Hardboiled is an incredibly restrictive, trope-driven genre: there’s the jaded hero, the mean streets, the femme fatales, the plot that tangles together threads of aristocrats and gangsters and conspiracies that are rooted in the apex of society. Speculative fiction--and science fiction in particular-- is all about the alien, the different, the forward-thinking, the utterly mindblowing. And Morgan’s world combines both with an utterly addictive flair.

 

Eight years after he dies from a gut shot while committing grand larceny, Takeshi Kovacs wakes up in someone else’s body and on someone else’s planet. Originally sentenced to decades of “digital human storage” incarceration, Kovacs is not thrilled to discover that Earth plutocrat Lorenz Bancroft has purchased his parole, re-housed his mind in a new body “sleeve,” and made him an offer he can’t refuse: solve Bancroft’s murder and be rewarded with riches and freedom, or submit to incarceration on the inhospitable and unfamiliar earth. With his elite Envoy training, Kovacs assumes the case won’t be too hard to crack, but all too soon, the complicated web of intrigue sucks him into the gritty underworld where the new forms of life that altered carbon promised have been twisted and subverted in ways not even the jaded Kovacs could have imagined.

 

Morgan’s world is phenomenally immersive. Bay City (apparently San Francisco and surroundings) is simultaneously familiar and alien, with street vendors luring in pedestrians with mindcasts, autonomous hotels desperately seeking visitors, red light districts promising everything real and unreal, and airborne traffic that practically becomes a parking lot during rush hour. Morgan has a gift for bringing his world to life through detail; for example, while Kovacs tends to use a lot of similes, he often likens the futuristic concepts to ones equally unfamiliar to the reader. His explanations of the similarities serve to bring both sides of the comparison to life for the reader while augmenting his world.

 

The book itself is action-packed to the gills. Kovacs goes up against mobsters, mad scientists, ritual fighters, angry cops, and even a psychotic zen killer-for-hire. Morgan’s descriptions are so vivid that I was left wincing and cringing during several scenes. There is also a lot of graphic (and in my opinion gratuitous) sex, from the prostitution ring that Kovacs has to infiltrate to his moments of passion with the women he encounters. I also suspect that this book has some of the highest density of profanity of any book I've read. Kovacs is a wry, witty, and sympathetic narrator, and he certainly seeks to be a tarnished knight, yet there’s also something terrifyingly inhuman about his ability to shut off all empathy and compassion. According to Kovacs,

"When they make an Envoy, do you want to know what they do? They burn out every evolved violence limitation instinct in the human psyche. Submission signal recognition, pecking-order dynamics, pack loyalties. It all goes, tuned out a neuron at a time; and they replace it with the conscious will to harm ... that's what an Envoy is.[...] A reassembled human. An artifice."

If a core aspect of humanity is the way we view the people around us, then Kovacs’s description of himself is apt. Throughout the story, Kovacs rages against those who believe they have the right to decide who is important and who is a “necessary sacrifice.” Through Kovacs’ flashbacks, the reader also sees the inhumanity of politics and war, and the ways in which lives become statistics which in turn become costs and profits:

"The only problem they had, as they cruised sharkishly back and forth across the cool marble floor of the court, was in drawing the fine differences between war--mass murder of people wearing a uniform not your own; justifiable loss--mass murder of your own troops, but with substantial gains; and criminal negligence--mass murder of your own troops, without appreciable benefit. I sat in that courtroom for three weeks listening to them dress it like a variety of salads, and with every passing hour the distinctions, which at one point I'd been pretty clear on, grew increasingly vague."

Yet when Kovacs switches on his Envoy mode and divests himself of compassion and empathy to wreak havoc, is he any different?

 

Kovacs sees the meths as inhuman because they believe they have the right to choose who is important and who is not, and who should be sacrificed and who should be saved. Yet he does precisely the same thing:

"You say you're going to break the law, but no one gets hurt. That's right?"

"No one who matters," I corrected gently.

The only difference is in their definitions of “who matters.”

"What choice should they have made? Not to be born on that particular world, at that particular time?" ...

"I was young and stupid," I said simply. "I was used. I killed for people like you because I knew no better. Then I learned better. What happened at Innenin taught me better. Now I don't kill for anyone but myself, and every time that I take a life, I know the value of it."

But who is Kovacs to decide that value?

(spoiler show)

 

 
Sure, Altered Carbon is a gritty, funny, vivid, breakneck, adrenaline-filled hardboiled escapade, but it’s also a glimpse into a future where death is not the end, where the mind can be torn away from its flesh, and where life must be redefined. Kovacs and his world start with the assumption that the self--one’s humanity, or personality, or soul--can be saved to a disc and decanted into a new body “sleeve.” But as Kovacs is forced to face the repercussions of the myriad ways in which a person can be warped and deconstructed, this easy definition is subtly challenged. How much of ourselves are our memories? Our bodies? In a world where the mind and body are simply altered carbon, what is the value or the meaning of a life?

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review 2015-02-23 00:43
Miami Blues
Miami Blues - Charles Willeford,Elmore Leonard

Book Reaction (not a full review)

I picked up Miami Blues because the author, Charles Willeford, is supposedly one of the core members of the hardboiled/noir canon. I'm not sure what I was expecting; Philip Marlowe in Miami, perhaps.

In actuality, Miami Blues focuses mostly on the perspective of the antagonist, a two-bit sociopath, during his post-prison spree in Miami. While his rampage starts with an accidental (and ridiculously improbable) death, the killer immediately settles down to make some money and find a Bonnie to his Clyde. The detective, Hoke Mosely, is a colourful character, but doesn't get much pagetime. Willeford seems far too fascinated by the brutal violence of his villain.

There's nothing wrong with Miami Blues, but it wasn't a good fit for me. I don't enjoy books that are told from the serial killer's perspective. My type of noir always has a "tarnished knight," and Hoke doesn't quite fit the mold for me. A lot of the book focused on the villain's attempt to abuse and shape a young woman into his helpmate, and no matter how questionable her own motives, I didn't enjoy reading about the violence against her.

I also was simply unable to get past the first death in the story: a young man who dies of shock after his finger is broken. Sure, maybe it's possible, but it's just so darned improbable, not to mention ridiculous.

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